World Wildlife Day 2017: Blogs from the Wildlife Conservation Society

In Paraguay’s Chaco, Learning to Live with Jaguars

The jaguar is the world’s third largest big cat (after lions and tigers) and the most powerful in the Americas. Photo ©WCS Paraguay.

By Maria del Carmen Fleytas
March 3, 2017

[WCS is recognizing World Wildlife Day with a series of blogs from across our programs.]

On this , I am thinking about a particularly spectacular animal in my part of the world, the jaguar. Although we have accomplished much for the conservation of this magnificent cat over the past decade, it continues to face decline. Today is a day to remind ourselves to appreciate wild species and the urgent need to take action.

The jaguar is the world’s third largest big cat (after lions and tigers) and the most powerful in the Americas. Ranging from the southwestern United States to northern Argentina, the jaguar is one of the most widely distributed big cat species in the world. I am proud to work on this living treasure — to protect it and inspire other people to care.

A cattle herd on one of the properties targetted by WCS’s jaguar conservation efforts. Photo ©WCS Paraguay.

In Paraguay, the Chaco region is a key jaguar landscape that western Paraguay shares with Bolivia. The Chaco has been identified as the region with the highest deforestation rate in the world. This is largely due to cattle ranching. A key activity for Paraguay’s economy, ranching has led Paraguay to become the 6th largest exporter of beef in the world.

As the accelerated expansion of the livestock frontier has not been sufficiently accompanied by measures that mitigate its environmental impacts, conflicts have arisen between pitting cattle ranchers against the goals of conservation. WCS has been working in Paraguay since 2010 to identify practical solutions to these conflicts and help the ranching community to value and respect the biodiversity found on their properties.

We are currently working to protect jaguars in the Chaco on 10 ranches totaling close to 580 square miles, of which nearly half is native forest. Jaguar populations and their prey are monitored through 122 camera traps installed in stations within these properties.

Camera trap image of white lipped peccaries, one of many of the diverse wildlife species in the Chaco region. Photo ©WCS Paraguay.

With additional support from US Fish and Wildlife Service and Paraguay’s Secretary of Environment (SEAM), we will also soon be monitoring jaguars and their prey in one of the largest protected areas of the country — the 2,780-square-mile Defensores del Chaco National Park — through a research and training program.

In recognition of our work, the Secretary of Environment invited us to participate in the Interinstitutional Working group to update management plans for three national parks in the Chaco. But the most important recognition of our work came two years ago, when SEAM trusted us to coordinate the development of Paraguay’s First National Jaguar Management Plan, covering the years 2017–2027.

This plan contains contributions from a unique mix of NGOs, researchers, and ranchers who seek to maintain jaguars as the symbol of wild across the productive landscapes and protected areas of Paraguay. It is multi-faceted effort with all of the ingredients needed for effective conservation, including an overview on the natural history of the jaguar, previous research, current status, and the legal framework supporting management decisions in Paraguay.

Tracks in the mud mark where a jaguar has paid a recent visit. Photo ©WCS Paraguay.

The most important piece of the plan may very well be protocols for managing human-jaguar conflicts, an important consideration for a country heavily invested in cattle ranching. Growth in Paraguay’s profitable cattle sector and other forms of agro-industry is likely to continue, so the new effort to maintain vital habitat for jaguars comes at a crucial time. As attacks often lead to rancher retaliation and jaguar mortality, preventing these attacks is a critical first step in this process.

WCS has strongly invested in testing effective techniques to prevent jaguar attacks to cattle, so that these big cats are no longer seen as a threat by ranchers. Some of the techniques tested, such as LED light systems or electric fences placed in cattle plots, have seen a 100 percent success rate in reducing attacks. We hope to continue to see improvement.

WCS’s Jaguar Coordinator John Polisar and colleagues installing a camera trap to monitor jaguar movements. Photo ©WCS Paraguay.

The long-term persistence of jaguars in Paraguay and other countries requires a mosaic of productive and protected areas, so jaguars can move across and survive in both. In all of WCS’s areas of engagement, we work hand-in-glove with the authorities managing the protected areas and motivated ranchers who can help preserve jaguar habitat and vital dispersal corridors.

Hopefully the work performed by WCS in the Chaco will demonstrate to ranchers that wild carnivores can coexist with humans keeping livestock, thus securing a future for jaguars in Paraguay. Collaborations and on-the-ground actions like these make me hopeful that we can save this cultural icon and symbol of the wild and other treasured species of this world.

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Maria Del Carmen Fleytas is Country Director for the Paraguay Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.